Man on Why

January 31, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

“Man on Wire” is the documentary about Philippe Petite walking a wire stretched between the two towers of the World Trade Center a quarter-mile above the ground. The tagline for the film is “The Artistic Crime of the Century.”

As that implies, the movie takes much from the “caper” film genre, and Fabio Rojas had a great post sketching the social organization dimensions of Petit’s operations. Petit is the center of attention, but his feats (he’s done this sort of thing more than once) are made possible only through extensive planning and coordination with a team of others.

But there’s a cultural note as well – that good old American automatic reflex, the utilitarian assumption (see here for another example). After Petit is captured by the police and brought to earth, a news reporter interviewing a cop at the scene asks, “Did he say anything about why he was doing it?” The question occurs again and again.

In the film, we hear Petit remembering back 30 years, still incredulous, describing the immediate response of the Americans:
And you know, “why, why.” . . . I did something magnificent and mysterious, and I got a practical ‘Why, why?’ The beauty of it is that I didn’t have any why.
That’s what makes it an artistic crime. Art for art’s sake, a concept that seems almost un-American.

Texas, Texas, What Do You Censor?

January 28, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

In the 1950s, there was HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee) and Joe McCarthy’s Senate Internal Security Subcommittee keeping us safe from commie ideas. Now there’s the Texas Board of Education. It just blacklisted Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? (Dallas Morning News story here).

The Board didn’t ban just Brown Bear. They crossed all books by Bill Martin, Jr. off the third grade reading list. Martin wrote dozens of books (partial list here); Brown Bear is easily the best known, certainly by me. I read aloud so often to my kid that I probably have it memorized. Most of the space on the page has illustrations. You can read the text in about a minute, literally. But obviously the Board didn’t bother to do that. Instead, they relied on information that Bill Martin had written also written a book containing “very strong critiques of capitalism and the American system.”

It’s an understandable enough mistake. After all, Bill Martin is an unusual name – how many can there be? And lots of authors who write books like Ethical Marxism are known to slip their insidious ideologies about “the categorical imperative of liberation” into children’s books that contain fewer than 50 different words, most of those words being I, you, what, do, and see.*

In the mid-1950s, the CBC broadcast a satire called The Investigator. It was later released as an LP that was distributed in almost samizdat-like underground fashion in the US. The premise was that Sen. McCarthy has been in a plane crash and gone to heaven. There, he teams up with Torquemada and others to root out communism and subversion on high. Their committee questions many people (Voltaire, Jefferson, Socrates, et. al.), and winds up sending them from Up Here to Down There.

McCarthy keeps calling Karl Marx before the committee, and each time he gets the wrong Karl Marx. “Oh no, I am not Karl Marx the writer,” each one says with a German accent “I’m Karl Marx the watchmaker.” Or the baker or whatever. Finally, McCarthy gets so frustrated, he sends all Karl Marxes to Down There.

And now we have the Texas Board of Education – Life imitating Art – sending all Bill Martin, Jr. books Down There.

The real problem is not just ignorance by the Board or its staff. It’s also the centralized structure of the Texas educational system. The Board makes decisions for all schools in the state. The irony here is that conservative Texans complain loudly about “bureaucrats” in Washington making decisions that affect very local issues. They have a point. The same point applies to the Texas Board of Education.

* The book does have five two-syllable words: goldfish, purple, yellow, teacher, and looking. I don’t mean to mess with Texas, but if these Bill Martin, Jr. books are being considered for third grade reading lists, you have to be a bit concerned about the quality of education in the Lone Star State.

Hat Tip: Elizabeth at Underage Reading . Inside Higher Ed also ran this story, apparently under the assumption that in Texas, third-grade reading lists fall into the category of higher ed.

City Mice, Country Mice

January 27, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Pennsylvania – Philadelphia in the east, Pittsburgh in the west, and Alabama in between.

The quote is usually attributed to political consultant James Carville. But how much “in between” is there? That’s crucial if you’re counting votes, which is mostly what Carville is interested in. But it’s also important for demographic variables that might not have much to do with voting.

I was thinking about this problem today because I’d just assigned students to look at the distribution of a variable across states. The trouble is that when you see a high or low score on some variable for a state, there are two important things you need to know:
  • how concentrated is the state’s population; how much of it is accounted for by one or two large cities?
  • how different are the metro and non-metro populations on this variable?
Unfortunately, the data set my students have to work with doesn’t provide that information.

Neil Freeman at Fake is the New Real gives us some help by slicing metro areas (blue) away from states (brown) and then resizing each according to population. Here’s Pennsylvania, carved à la Carville.

(Fake Freeman puts the areas in rank order of population. I had to find the pieces and put them back together to make this graphic.)

New Yorkers often distinguish between the New York City area (NYC plus the Long Island and Westchester suburbs) and everything else, called “Upstate.” Here’s how that one looks (Fake Freeman separates Buffalo and Rochester as well).

(Note: the scale in the two graphics is the same. So Pennsylvania without its cities is more populous that New York without its cities. Pittsburgh metro is much larger than Buffalo or Rochester.)

Other interesting states:
  • Illinois – Chicago and Downstate
  • Texas – even without its big cities, Texas ranks fourth (after NYC, LA, and Chicago). There’s still a lot of non-metro Texas. Don’t mess with it.
  • Nevada – Las Vegas (ranked #64) dwarfs the rest of the state (#93).
  • New Jersey– Fake Freeman takes out the urban areas, giving them either to the NYC or Philadelphia metro area. After that, there’s just not much left – geographically, at least (in population, non-metro NJ is ranked 89th, which puts it ahead of a half-dozen intact states).

Correlation and Cause - Feeding and Breeding

January 25, 2010
Posted by Jay Livingston

Andre Bauer’s idea that poor people are like stray animals is what will get most of the attention, as I suppose it should. Bauer* is running for governor of the enlightened state of South Carolina, where Appalachian Trail hiker Mark Sanford is still in that office.** Bauer is Lt. Gov., and here’s what he said à propos programs for free and reduced-price lunches in the public schools.
My grandmother was not a highly educated woman, but she told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals. You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that. And so what you've got to do is you've got to curtail that type of behavior. They don't know any better,
Bauer stands by his analogy and says he was quoted out of context. Right.

Obviously, Bauer did not take Sociology of Poverty. Of less importance politically is that he also skipped the methods course. Apparently, he has some data – a bar graph – but he mistakes correlation for cause.
I can show you a bar graph where free and reduced lunch has the worst test scores in the state of South Carolina. You show me the school that has the highest free and reduced lunch, and I'll show you the worst test scores, folks. It's there, period.
I suppose that it is somehow possible that providing food for impoverished kids makes them dumb. Maybe electing people to office in the Palmetto State has a similar effect.

*Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer is not to be confused with Andre Braugher, the excellent actor who plated Detective Pembleton on “Homicide” (the forerunner to “The Wire”) and is currently in “Men of a Certain Age.” Pictures below. You figure out which Andre is which.

** What’s up with The Palmetto State and its public servants? Lt. Gov. Bauer is incautious not just in his campaign speeches. He also tends to get stopped for speeding, and he once crash-landed a small plane. (CSM article here.) Then, besides Sanford and Bauer, there’s the former chair of the SC Board of Education, who home schooled her kids, believes that “intelligent design” and “abstinence only” should be taught in the schools, and resigned only when it was revealed that she also publishes online porn (oops, I mean erotic fiction.) The story and links to her very NSFW prose are here. I guess she just wanted to put the palm back in palmetto.